The further along I go on my spiritual journey, the more I find I have in common with atheists, and the less I see I have in common with religious people. My favorite pastor, regarding his sermons, is Roger Ray. I think he would describe himself as an agnostic. But, since he’s a person who regularly rails against a belief in the afterlife or a God who intervenes in human affairs, I’d classify him more as an atheist. Yet, he is one of my favorite pastors because we have a lot in common. When I hear an atheist say they are an atheist and I ask them what they mean, almost inevitably, all of the things they don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.
I was again reminded of this kinship with atheists recently when listening to the Russell Brand podcast Under the Skin. (Confession time, I have a man-crush on Russell Brand. He’s brilliant) Two guests, in particular, revealed this to me. He had Sam Harris, a famous apologist for atheism, and Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek minister of finance. Both are atheists, but both agree with Russell and me about some very important and fundamental realities of our reality. There seems to be a new type of atheist emerging from the strict materialist atheism I was familiar with. Let’s call this new atheism postmodern atheism. If modern atheists believed there is only the material world, consciousness and spirit are both illusions, at best; postmodern atheists think both consciousness and soul are genuine and essential parts of being human. Both of these types of atheists still believe that everything is rooted in the material world. Consciousness exists. But, they think it clearly is emergent from the physical. The former atheists were basically nihilists. The postmodern atheists, not so much.
What I have in common with the new atheists
The things I have in common with the new atheist are many and significant. Consciousness is all we can be sure of. We perceive the world through our senses. We have no direct access to what is actually occurring. We know our senses can be fooled. Maybe there is a physical reality, perhaps there isn’t. Since we rely on our senses to tell us what is going on “outside” of us, for all we know we could be a brain in a jar in a scientist’s laboratory reacting to input from a computer. Or, we could very well be characters in s a very detailed and realistic computer game. What we do know directly is our awareness or our consciousness of these phenomena. Consciousness is the only thing we can be entirely sure is real. Far from the crazies who went so far to question whether consciousness even existed, these new atheists are admitting consciousness is the only thing we can be sure is real. It’s the only thing we can experience.
Besides the fact that consciousness is genuine, another thing I have in common with these new atheists is the fact that humans are more than biological robots, rising from an accident. We don’t live in a strictly materialistic and deterministic universe. Human beings have agency. To my surprise, Yanis said he has absolute belief in the “human spirit.” Sam Harris acknowledges this as well. Their faith in the human spirit has led to a type of morality freed from the shackles of religious belief or belief in a questionable history told to us by people writing with an agenda.
This leads to the third thing I have in common with postmodern atheists. I believe there is a real objective morality. The Christian morality, for many, is based on the writings of Moses who may or may not have existed and who almost certainly did not receive carved tablets penned by Elohim. If you cannot accept the claims of the journey of Moses to the top of the mountain, you can quickly reject the authority of the Ten Commandments. Sam Harris speaks of morality as maximizing beauty, joy, and love and minimizing suffering. It’s simple and concise. Who could argue with that? What do we need to add? And, while one might expect atheists to argue against any real objective morality, he argues against moral relativism, an extreme many liberals have gone toward as they have become unmoored from the religion their morality was based on. We bend over backward to not call anything wrong. As long as someone has a sincerely held belief, who are we to judge? This has led to a reluctance to criticize things that are clearly wrong, just because they are done in the name of religion or in a different culture. If Saudis want to behead people for being gay or say it’s OK for a man to beat his wife, some say “Well hey, that’s their religious or cultural prerogative. It’s right for them.” Religion can convince people to do almost anything they are told, whether it’s right or wrong. Those who are spiritual will do what is right regardless of what they are told. Those of us who believe some things are right or wrong regardless of sincerely held beliefs or cultural norms would disagree. Things like “honor” killings, female genital mutilation, and forced marriages are wrong, in any culture.
The fourth thing we have in common is a belief in scripture. Surprisingly, I heard Yanis say he believes in scripture. That doesn’t mean he takes it literally as history or even accurate regarding gods. What it means is he takes the moral lessons from scripture as being true and applies them regardless of their literal truth. This is something else I have in common with these new atheists. I still quote the Bible extensively even though I long ago set aside the belief that most of it is historical or that it should be taken literally.
Where we disagree
I believe that we all came from consciousness, which I often refer to as Source. This is fundamental and pre-dates the material. The material would not exist without consciousness forming it and maintaining it. I believe that, as consciousness, as Souls, we survive the physical death of the vehicles we use while we are here. So, stretching backward, we pre-exist this body and going forward, we endure the cessation of these biological functions. I believe that the soul/spirit is what animates the body. It doesn’t arise from the body.
While we disagree on where we came from and where we are going to, we agree entirely on what we should be doing while we are here- maximizing joy, beauty, and love and minimizing suffering.
Do the differences matter?
The fact that I think consciousness is fundamental and they think consciousness comes from the material, I think is immaterial. The origins story, while interesting, isn’t particularly significant. How we got here isn’t as relevant as where we are. What is more important to me is the destination story. I’m not sure what they believe what happens when you die. It follows that if you believe the spirit arises from a complex arrangement of matter, when that matter loses that arrangement, the spirit would dissipate. Does that matter in how treat our fellow man? Does it lessen, the joy, beauty, and love we can experience or hope to share with others while we are here?
Here is what I think is critical about your beliefs and Sam Harris says the same thing. Does it improve your behavior? Does it bring you peace and joy?
Imagine There’s No Religion
This is what has got me really excited. I see where we come together as a new type of spirituality. The tenets are that humans are conscious beings with moral responsibilities to each other. We are more than the sum of our biological parts. We can learn from the scriptures, not just of our own particular religion but of all ancient scripture and even new writings. We can agree on an objective morality and act and govern accordingly. This new type of spirituality could begin to a spirituality we can all embrace. Christians could embrace it without giving up their Christianity. Muslims could embrace it while remaining Muslim. But, most importantly, people who don’t believe in the literal interpretation of any text or in any particular origins story could get on board.
Can mankind evolve beyond religion? Can we come to embrace a spirituality based solely on observation of what is around us and not on special revealed knowledge? John Lennon spoke of this. When he said “no religion too” in the song Imagine, I have always felt he was not saying imagine a world of nihilism and utter lack of spirituality. I think he meant quite the opposite. Religions are often what divides us. We kill and die in the name of our particular god. I’ve heard Christians time and time again say “Allah is not God,” one of the most ludicrous things someone could say. This new spirituality could bring us together in a way we haven’t been together as the human race in millennia.
p.s.- the image used for this post came up in my Facebook feed just after I finished the initial draft of this post. Since it was sent to me, I thought I might as well use it. Good timing, Universe.